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Nicole Laird plays with her son, Dominik, 2, while spending time with him on a playground at House of Mercy, a drug treatment halfway house in Des Moines. / Christopher Gannon, The Des Moines Register

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Nicole Laird screwed up, but she's got guts. She's throwing herself out there on Mother's Day, when you usually read about warm and fuzzy moms who did everything right for their kids.

Laird, 41, of Des Moines had four children by three different fathers and she chose to chase down drugs instead of mothering those kids.

At age 14, she had a daughter that she shipped to Texas to live with her father. In her 20s, she had her parental rights to two more daughters terminated by state child welfare officials.

Her son, Dominik, born 2 1/2 years ago, was also destined to be removed from her care. A drug test showed she had been using methamphetamines, an addiction that spanned more than two decades.

But this time she didn't run. She walked to House of Mercy, a center that provides housing and assistance to parenting women with addictions in Des Moines.

"I knew right then if I didn't ask for help I would lose Niko," she said.

This time, she felt low but not defiant. Before, she told others that it's the life she chose. Like it or lump it.

This is who she was:

She first smoked marijuana in fifth grade, got high with her parents as a teenager and moved on to meth because it made her feel enlightened and social and allowed her to party all night. She didn't work. It was easy enough to find a man who was a user and dealer who had the drugs she needed. All she had to bother with was getting up and finding drugs, lying and stealing to get them.

One morning she awoke to guns pointed in her face. A drug raid resulted in her serving 21 months in prison. But nothing changed, except for daughters Steffani and Camryn Shannon, who no longer had a mother.

Laird took her first airplane trip to a Texas penal institution, albeit chained to the seat like a vision out of the movie "Con Air." When she got out of prison, she started getting high again.

But this is what happened a year ago when she faced child welfare officials sent by the courts:

She entered a meeting and figured they were there to scold her shoddy parenting and threaten to take away her child again.

Instead, she heard them say they wanted to help.

"We used to dangle family visits in front of them if they had a clean (urine test). What we were doing is damage to the child. What we needed to do is help them safely parent again," said Judy Norris, the community coordinator of Polk County's Safe Babies Court Team that took Laird's case.

The national nonprofit organization Zero to Three helped set up the team in Des Moines in 2005 as a new way to deal with family issues. Children under 3 involved in displacement are traumatized and their brain development hindered when they don't have contact with their parents or other adults, studies show.

So instead of taking the child away, the first response is an attempt to bring the family back together by linking them up with community services and drug treatment, a program led in Polk County by Associate Juvenile Judge Connie Cohen.

Several sites across the country implemented the program, and studies showed that 38 percent of young children reunite with family and 41 percent are adopted, exiting foster care an average of one year earlier than other cases at a savings of $7,300 per child.

"That day ended up being the most awesome day," Laird said. "These people were wanting to help me."

Laird never felt like she was worth anything. She said she was ashamed. She had hurt a lot of people. She had abandoned her kids, and she didn't want her legacy to them to be addiction.

The staff built her up, she said, instead of looking at her as a drug addict. "Everybody said there is nothing you can't do."

She got treatment for her addiction and has been clean one year as of Friday. She was cleared to raise Niko, who today lives with her at House of Mercy. One day she dreams of having a home with him, and continues to communicate with her daughters Steffani, 15, and Camryn, 13, who still live with her sister.

Laird changed. She will soon become a mentor to other parents going through troubles. And Norris saw enough in her that she asked Laird to tell of her comeback to motherhood in Washington, D.C., last month before a congressional briefing.

It was the second time Laird had been on an airplane. This time, she wasn't chained to a seat but was asked if she would like a beverage.

She was somebody again, mainly to Niko. He bounded across the playground outside House of Mercy on a bright spring day, a knee-high kid with bangs of brown hair. He looked happy.

His mom never felt loved before, and she wants to show him love.

"Now I have a connection unlike anything I've felt before," she said. "He's an awesome kid. And I'm an awesome mom."

She says it proudly to anyone. She's finally a mom.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: After life as addict, she's ready to be a mom

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